Friday, January 30, 2009

How could they have done that?

January 30, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #8
Sui Sin Far, "In the Land of the Free"

" 'Slept!' she echoed, weepingly. 'Ah, how could I close my eyes with my arms empty of the little body that has filled them every night for more than twenty moons! You do not know-man-what it is to miss the feel of the little fingers and the little toes and the soft round limbs of your little one. Even in the darkness his darling eyes used to shine up to mine, and often have I fallen into slumber with his pretty babble at my ear. And now, I see him not; I touch him not; I hear him not. My baby, my little fat one!' 'Now! Now! Now!' consoled Hom Hing, patting his wife's shoulder reassuringly; 'there is no need to grieve so; he will soon gladden you again. There cannot be any law that would keep a child from its mother!' " (Sui Sin Far, In the Land of the Free)

Here, Lae Choo mourns over her "Little One", who had been taken from her and detained by the United States government due to "immigrational issues". She experiences the first night without his company, and finds the night already unbearable. Hom Hing, her husband, attempts to comfort her by saying that there is no law that would keep a family from being united. Little did they know that it would cost them ten months of separation and a generous amount of family jewels before they could be united with their son. By then, however, due to such long period of separation, Lae Choo's "Little One" does not recognize her, and tells her to go away. The "Little One" is no longer the "Little One"; he is now Kim, a well-liked boy in a mission nursery school.

"There cannot be any law that would keep a child from its mother!" Turns out there is. After I finished Sui Sin Far's In the Land of the Free, I initially thought that the story was an exaggeration of what was actually happening at that time. Things couldn't be that bad, I thought. Nobody in their right minds would establish such a law and wreck potentially thousands of Chinese families. I then searched wikipedia for Sui Sin Far, when the "Chinese Exclusion Act" caught my eye. I clicked on the link and lo and behold, the title "Chinese Exclusiong Act" stared at me in bold letters. Honestly, I felt ashamed of myself for not knowing this piece of history that concerns me, or at least the Chinese, so much. There is absolutely no justifications for the United States to do such thing. People of other races were flooding into the states. Only the Chinese were locked out at the door.

Say that the Americans really despise us Chinese for every racial reason in the world. Fine, after all, the United States government has control over who comes in and out of the country. But why, why tear up the families so that they can't see each other for decades? What good does that do? The government already made their point; they don't like Chinese coming into the country. At least have the decency to allow those families who are separated by this atrocious "exclusion act" to reunite, and then deport them. Yet another example of just how cruel and inhuman the United States government can be at that time. It's just sad to know that it is possible that what Sui Sin Far wrote in her story may have actually happened.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Getting what one thought one wants

January 28, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #7
Abraham Cahan, "The Imported Bridegroom"

"The young woman gazed about her in perplexity. The Scotchman and his reading inspired her with respect, but the rest of the company and the tout ensemble of the scene impressed her as the haunt of queer individuals, meeting for some sinister purpose. It was anything but the world of intellectual and physical elegance into which she had dreamed to be introduced by marriage to a doctor. Any society of 'custom peddlers' was better dressed than these men, who appeared to her more like some of the grotesque and uncouth characters in Dickens's novels than an assemblage of educated people. For a moment even Shaya seemed a stranger and an enemy. Overcome by the stuffy, overheated atmosphere of the misshpaen apartment, she had a sense of having been kidnaped into the den of some terrible creatures, and felt like crying for help." (Abraham Cahan, The Imported Bridgroom)

After initially feeling repulsed towards her "bridgegroom" in which her father "won" in a bid in Pravly, Flora decides to exploit Shaya's intelligence in making him to become the husband of her dreams. Her plans seem to have succeeded until she fell to the realization that this wasn't what she wanted in the first place. Instead of a doctor with a hat and traveling in a buggy, Shaya transformed to a person totally warped up in his studies, and instead of classy academic discussions, he befriends a group of unsightly "scholars" in an attic.

It's safe to say that during the course of life there will be a time when people start regretting in getting what they thought they want. It may be a sleek leather couch with a four-figure price tag that feels no different from the old one, or it may be a furry dog who appears to be the cutest creature during the first few days but then seems like nothing but a pooping machine. Flora, sadly, hit the jackpot. She ends up with an "Americanized" husband that she neither recognizes nor wants.

Some may say that Flora brought this on herself, or some may say that Shaya is the unfortunate victim of American culture. Personally, I think it's a little bit of both. First of all, when one goes from one culture to another, one is bound to be affected in some way or the other. This can't be blamed on the "evilness" of a culture, it's just inevitable. Take me for example. A few months in America and now I'm already thinking that living here without a car is unnatural and inconvenient, something I would never have thought of back in Hong Kong. It's basically the same with Shaya. "Victimized" is an unfair and harsh term; "affected" would be much more appropriate. It's not the fault of Shaya, or "American culture", or anybody, it's just bound to happen.

As for whether Flora brought this on herself, I would partly agree with this statement. The question is, would Shaya had gone the same way even without the influence of Flora? Considering his curiousity and intellect, I say it is very possible. What Flora did accelerated, or rather, prodded Shaya into that direction. She's too far off in her romantic world that the first thing she thought of was to exploit Shaya's wit to "mold" him into the husband that she wants. This actually reminded me, in a bizarre way I guess, to Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein created "Frankenstein", but then becomes repulsed with what "it" has become, and how different it is from his imagination. One cannot forget the famous line in which Victor exclaims, "It's alive!" To compare Shaya with Frankenstein would be rather ridiculous, but I think what Flora experienced is quite similar to Victor; they both wanted something very badly, but then in the end that "thing" turned out to be not what they wanted in the first place. The elegant, spectacled husband who practices medicine never existed. It's only in the head of Flora and Dickens' novels.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The innocence of the sheep

January 22, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #6
Zitkala Sa, "The School Days of an Indian Girl"

"I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a coward's! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder." (Zitkala Sa, The School Days of an Indian Girl)

In this quote, Zitkala describes how she struggled against having her hair cut as she does not want to be seen as a coward. She submits to the haircut in the end, and began what proved to be a long and lonely education in a predominantly white environment. She dreamt of "big, red apples" and the "iron horse" before she left her family to go to study in the East; what she got eventually is somewhat different from the things that she envisioned.

The first thing that came to mind when reading this passage was the relation to sheep and the shearing of fleece with Zitkala's first few incidents at school, i.e., her being tossed in the air and the cutting of her hair against her will. The parallels are remarkably similar. Although I'm not particularly familiar with the Native Americans, through reading both the autobiograph of Winnemucca and Zitkala, I came to observe that they were peaceful people of great innocence. It is impossible to imagine the pain and suffering that Zitkala had gone through; the disappointment and fright she experienced during her school days.

I must say that I felt a degree of sadness that that is different from what I had felt before when reading autobiographies. "Then I lost my spirit." This sentence struck me on the head like a hammer. It's one thing to hear about removal and the killings of the Native Americans on their home soil, which is already terrible enough, but it's another thing to witness, in writing, the innocence of a little girl being literally destroyed and with reality slapping her across the face. This is partly why I think that her message is so powerful; she manages to capture the essence of her emotions and, as Tim O'Brien once said, make readers "feel what she felt".

Children were not supposed to be involved in racial discrimination or conflicts. Yes, Americans were trying to get as much land as possible from the Native Americans, and they were willing to go to the same measures with the African Americans in order to do so. But still, at least offer an acceptable environment for the Native American children to study and learn; at least respect their customs, culture and religion; at least refrain from shoving Christianity down their throats and attempt to set their minds in cast iron. The lamb will one day be the sheep and will have to face the shears, but to shear the lamb before it's wool is fully grown and ready is simply irresponsible and cruel.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fear of differences; the ugliness of humanity

January 20, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #5
Sarah Winnemucca, "Life Among the Piutes"

"Now, the white people we saw a few days ago must certainly be our white brothers, and I want to welcome them. i want to love them as I love all of you. But they would not let me; they were afraid. But they will come again, and I want you one and all to promise that, should I not live to welcome them myself, you will not hurt a hair on their heads, but welcome them as I tried to do." (Sarah Winnemucca, Life Among the Piutes)

This was the note in which Winnemucca's grandfather ended his speech to the tribe on the eve of the sighting of white men upon their territory. He believed that the strangers were their white brothers; brothers who were separated since the dawn of time due to quarrels; brothers who were now prepared to reconcile with him and his people; brothers who meant no harm, but peace. Captain Truckee attempted to welcome these white men with open arms. He believed that the blossoming of friendship between the two races seem possible, even probable. He could not have been more wrong.

I must say that during the course of reading biographies and essays by both Washington and Du Bois in the past week, coupled with the work of Sarah Winnemacca read this week, made me realize and rethink an observation that had been lurking in the back of my mind for quite some time. This may be a similar response to the comment I gave on ENG34H, but I will state it here once again: Men of the same country, or of the same race, are afraid and most often unwilling to befriend or understand people that are different from them in race, culture, religion, or maybe a combination of all three.
Fear drives man to terrible deeds. The case of the Native Americans were, regrettably, only the tip of an iceberg. I am not saying that it is only Americans that displays such trait and characteristic, but it is without question that they are responsible for many atrocious acts carried out on people of different race and culture. The African Americans. The Native Americans. The Arabs and the Muslims. The Middle-Easterners. America feels the need to outmuscle and bend every different race to her will. They dress up their greed and the urge to establish themselves as the dominant power in forcefully conjured reasons and explanations. Sarah Winnemucca, her tribe, her race, were the unfortunate victims swept into the path of a hurricane. Personally, the Piutes appear to me as innocent and naive people. Strangers come to their land, and the first thought they came up with was to welcome them. They offered them food and shelter. Instead of gratitude in which they deserved, they were hoarded out of their homes and treated as animals. What did the Native Americans did to deserve this? All they did was trying to welcome these foreign strangers. All they wanted to do was to make friends. Yet they never had the chance.

One cannot help but wonder whether humanity even existed during those terrible times. In my other English literature class, we were, coincidentally, discussing Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Were the Americans at that time nothing but tribes of Lilliputians and Yahoos? Is there not even a shred of love and respect for another human being in them? We pride ourselves as creatures of reason, creatures capable of higher thinking, intelligence, and emotions. It is the wall that separates us from animals. Now we look upon events about the Native Americans and the African Americans as part of history, and congratulate ourselves at the actions and decisions we took to end it all. Yet this should never have happened in the first place. I do hope that the society could take heed from the lessons of history, and prevent such inhuman acts from ever happening again.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Du Bois and the souls of black folk

January 15, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #4
W. E. B. Du Bois, "The Souls of Black Folk"

"The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, -this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face." (W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk)

In this quote, the notion of "double consciousness" or "two-ness", as one may call it, was introduced by Du Bois. The American Negro was placed at that time in a position of great dilemma: he believed that he deserved the same civil rights as the whites, but at the same time he had to cope with poverty and realities of life. Being torn between the two causes, Du Bois argued that any attempt for the Negro to operate on both ends at the same time "could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either cause." Du Bois then went on to analyze the position and identity of the American Negro in the society after emancipation, and subsequently launched his bold attacks on the philosophy and the measures to improve the lives of the African Americans put forth by Booker T. Washington.

Could it be possible that the minds and souls of the black folks be more fittingly described, analyzed, and explained than by the words of Du Bois? Indeed, Du Bois was right in saying that the African Americans at that time had too much on their hands. Emancipation was supposed to signify the promise of freedom and dignity to the negroes, and yet decades later the promise proved to be as distant as ever.

This is not our problem, Du Bois is saying. What we want, what we as blacks want, is simply the rights to be regarded as equals and enjoy the opportunities that come along with it. It is the whites, Du Bois continues, that need to change the way of how they perceive the American negroes. I agree with Du Bois with this point. Whatever race a man was born to be, it must not be a factor when judging whether a man deserves certain rights or not. All men are born equal. To strip a man of his opportunities and of his rights, and to place him in a position of inferiority is an insult to the very core values of humanity that we stand for.

Du Bois regards that admitting, or even passive submission to the idea that the black race was inferior is insulting and repulsive to his own race, which is one of the main reasons of his conflict with Booker T. Washington. Du Bois participated actively in opposing against the views and perceptions of black being biologically inferior to other races. He argued that "the Negro races are from every physical standpoint full and normally developed men [who] show absolutely no variation from the European type sufficient to base any theory of essential human difference upon" (wikipedia). This form of scientific racism reminded me of the Nazis during the war, at that time which they conjured up a volley of "scientific" reports claiming that the Jews was an inferior race, and should not be allowed to live and "mingle" with other races. It is indeed saddening to see what lengths these people would go to the benefit of themselves or for the sole purpose to elevate their status and emphasize their fabricated superiority.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Moses of the African Americans

January 14, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #3
Booker T. Washington, "Up From Slavery"

"From any point of view, I had rather be what I am, a member of the Negro race, than be able to claim membership with the most favoured of any other race...I am conscious of the fact that mere connection with what is known as a superior race will not permanently carry an individual forward unless he has individual worth, and mere connection with what is regarded as an inferior race will not finally hold an individual back if he possesses intrinsic, individual merit...This I have said here, not to call attention to myself as an individual, but to the race to which I am proud to belong." (Booker T. Washington, "Up From Slavery" Chapter II. Boyhood Days)

The above quote was from Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, an autobiography of a man who had experienced and was subsequently freed from slavery as a child, a man who did everything he could to educate himself, a man who delivered the inspirational speech "Atlanta Compromise" that established itself as one of the most significant milestones in the history of African Americans, a man who was christened as "the Moses of his race".

Autobiographies often prove to be such fascinating reads, and in the case of Up from Slavery, the awe and respect which I personally hold for this brilliant man after reading a portion of the book simply cannot be exaggerated. I personally believe that the African Americans have every right to claim that the environment, the hostility that they were up against in the society, and even the laws made after the emancipation were unfair to them, and under the situation they cannot achieve anything significant. If I myself were to be in their shoes, I would've thought similarly; that I, too, cannot be successful. And yet Washington, in those times of turmoil, boldly said that he believed, not hope, but am conscious of the fact that being African American would not hold one back from the trials to success, and he was proud to be a negro. Basically, he's saying that yes, we may be regarded as the inferior race at the moment, but that should not condemn us in thinking that we do not possess any merit or value. Moreover, he argued that "the surest way for blacks eventually to gain equal social rights was to demonstrate patience, industry, thrift, and usefulness...that these were the key to improved conditions for African Americans in the United States" (wikipedia). I admire him for how he stood his ground and hung to his principles even as racial discrimination and degrading portrayals of the African Americans were running rampant at that time. I also admire him for sowing the seeds for non-violent resistance. Though he himself was a slave when he was a child, he bore no grudge nor bitterness against the whites; he merely implored people of his race to resiliently and silently work on, and the success of them would eventually alter the views and prejudices of those around them. This reminded me of a quote from yet another famous African American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King: "To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding." Did that seem impossible at that time? Certainly. And yet now, in the year 2009, the United States of America will be having her first African American president. Both Washington and King would have been proud.

It was Martin Luther King who delivered his "I have a Dream" speech, and it was Booker T. Washington who inspired the dream within King, not to mention countless of African Americans. In the book of Exodus, Moses delivered the Hebrews from slavery and lead them, after forty years in the desert, to the promised land of Canaan. I would say that Washington did the same.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Thoughts on insanity

January 8, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #2
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"

"There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stopping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit. I wonder-I begin to think-I wish John would take me away from here!" (Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper")

So much for the infamous rest cure treatment. As Gilman later noted in "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wall-paper'?" (Norton Anthology), the very same treatment pushed her "so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I(she) could see over." While Gilman managed to escape mostly unscathed from the terrible ordeal, her protagonist in "The Yellow Wallpaper" did not, and was swept down the furious raging tide of insanity at the end of the story. The idea that a curable case of post-partum depression could actually escalate to complete and utter psychosis merely by the mental confinement of the mind itself is an exceedingly frightening idea.

As it could be clearly seen, insanity played a significant role throughout the course of the story. And yet it seemed to me that this was no ordinary patient from the asylum with drool coming out of their mouths nor those who mutter to themselves in gibberish all day long in the dark. Something else was present in the narrator here, something far more sinister that ultimately lead to her not being the average insane character that one would expect. I felt that as obviously insane the narrator was at the end of the story, she still managed to sound perfectly sane and rational. She ponders upon the possibility of jumping out the window, then reasons that the bars were too strong and would prevent her from falling. Then she convinces herself that with the well-fastened rope, she could not be gotten out onto the road. While this may not seem like logical reasoning, at least she was carrying out the act of reasoning to begin with, an action which is usually lost within those of the insane and mentally ill. This reminded me of Stephen King's novel "Misery", where the female protagonist, a nurse named Annie Wilkes, was also insane and emotionally deranged. What is common in both pieces of work is that both writers did not mention at any point that their characters were insane. Instead, they managed to convey the idea through the characters' actions, and in some occasions they even sound perfectly normal and reasonable. The insane, ironically enough, actually appeared to be sane for brief moments of time. The narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" made guesses about the "mystery" behind the wallpaper and tried to fathom the complex pattern of it; the nurse Annie Wilkes in "Misery" reasoned that she must detain, torture, and force Paul Sheldon the writer in order to have him write another novel just for her. As it could be seen, the actions of both characters are unreasonable and, from the eyes of others, bizarre and irrational, whereas both King and Gilman made their characters to believe that what they were doing was logical and right. I think this is precisely one of the reasons as to why the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is so realistic and grotesque at the same time. Yes, readers can infer that she is most certainly being forced to insanity at the end of the story, but her uncanny reasoning and moments of logic adds to the eerie quality of her character as a whole. In my opinion, merely an insane character thrown into a story would be no good; on the other hand, an insane character who believes and acts that he or she is sane would surely cause a great deal of sparks even in the most modest of plots.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Farquhar, with a splash of Bierce?

January 7, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #1
Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

"As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walls, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of match less grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with the extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon-then all is darkness and silence!" (Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" Part III)

There was never a war that was fought with beauty and glory, no matter how one portrays it. As Hemingway so aptly stated, "In modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason." Farquhar, as it seems, was the victim caught within the tendrils of war. Here, the seemingly miraculous escape of Farquhar crashed to a screeching halt as it was revealed by Bierce that the noose around the neck of the unfortunate man had not broke after all, and it was only his imagination alone that conjured up the events that followed during the brief moment before his eventual death. As in the case of a great many tragedies written since the beginning of time, Peyton Farquhar's last thought before his death on Owl Creek bridge was about a loved one.

It would be logical to infer that the characterization of Farquhar by Bierce was to inflict sympathy, passion, and pity upon the readers' part. After all, Farquhar seemed like anything but a criminal who deserved to die in a hanging. His attire and features were that of a gentleman. He has a wife, a son, a home, and an occupation. What Bierce successfully portrayed in the story was the ugliness and futility of war which, when considering Bierce's biography, may very well be his own views and perspectives upon war. In one of Bierce's last letters to his niece, Lora, he wrote (source: wikipedia), "Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that's a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs." Would it be too far-fetched then to venture a guess that when creating the character Farquhar, Bierce included a bit of himself in him? Farquhar died in a hanging during the Civil War; Bierce had stated that he would prefer dying amid the crossfire of the revolution rather than an ordinary, plain death. Was this how Bierce imagined his death, with his hair combed straight back and in a frock-coat, dying like a gentleman in the midst of war and conflict? Was Bierce preferred death, so to speak, on his mind when he wrote the story? Personally, I think that there are solid grounds for such an argument to be made.

That alone could be inferred when one considers the role of Farquhar in the story along with the life of Bierce himself. More could be said as to how the story ended, as I have quoted at the beginning of this journal: Bierce chose to have Farquhar "see" his home and his wife before revealing that he was, in fact, dead. One might say that this is to be expected, and that most tragedies, both past and present, usually end with the protagonist mourning or missing those who they love. In fact, the ending reminded me of the movie "Gladiator", in which the final scene was very similar to the story. Both protagonists visualized ending up on the doorsteps of their home seeing their wives before they met their ends. But if I am to venture yet another bold guess, I would say that the ending of this story contains another bit of Bierce in it. From his biography (source: Norton Anthology), "Bierce's personal life was a series of disasters. His definition of marriage (in the Devil's Dictionary)-'the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two'-reflected his views on his own marriage (which ended in divorce in 1891)." At the time when this story was published, Bierce was separated from his wife after discovering compromising letters to her from an admirer (source: wikipedia). By having Farquhar not being able to clasp at his wife even in his imagination during his final moments, could it be said that Bierce was indirectly expressing his view upon love itself? Was this a caricature of his love which was wrought down from the pedestal not long ago? Or maybe by having Farquhar getting the chance to at least see his wife for one last time in his mind before his death, Bierce was too expressing his own hope indirectly upon his love.

The above speculations are only some of my personal thoughts after reading both "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and the biography of Ambrose Bierce, and might appear to some as completely groundless and unnecessary. Precisely as to whether Bierce's failed marriage on his mind at all at the time when he wrote the ending, or whether Bierce was indeed envisioning his own death when writing about the hanging of Farquhar is impossible to determine. One could but only guess.